Point Breeze's uneasy greeting of better times

John Longacre and Aaron Ultimo (right) operate adjoining shops at 15th and Mifflin. Longacre, a Bucks County native, likes the prospects here, where housing is plentiful and transit is good.
John Longacre and Aaron Ultimo (right) operate adjoining shops at 15th and Mifflin. Longacre, a Bucks County native, likes the prospects here, where housing is plentiful and transit is good.
Posted: April 04, 2011

On tiny Fernon Street, where sneakers dangle from power lines and vacant lots outnumber houses, the memorial painted on a wall two decades ago still looms vibrant, with its blue sky and butterflies around the names of 46 young people cut down by violence, a testament to the community's weary soul.

Up the street, Omar Singletary, who grew up in this Point Breeze neighborhood and returned as part of its revival, waits for a bus to a downtown meeting. As Center City pushes outward, his childhood home has become a blur of redevelopment.

Block after block holds a staccato of sagging two-story homes abutting shiny three-story developments, dreary corner stores and new cafes, boarded-up houses and an array of for-sale signs on rehabbed ones, creating a clash of old and new, of long-standing decay and rapid renewal.

Point Breeze, which is south of Washington Avenue and west of Broad Street, is a conflict of worry, hurt, and hope, sometimes all within one resident.

There is concern that the predominantly African American neighborhood is losing its working-class character to gentrification, and that residents who endured decades of blight, crime, and neglect will be priced out.

There is hurt that only now, with newcomers trickling in, are people starting to care about Point Breeze.

But there is a stronger, louder hope - and gladness - that redevelopment has finally come.

About two weeks ago, urged by a small community group, Council President Anna C. Verna introduced a bill to stop construction in Point Breeze higher than two-stories for one year. Ever since, she said, her phone has been "ringing off the hook," with residents telling her they want development and the progress it brings.

"We decided to introduce it only to discover that this was not the wish of the community," Verna said. "You get different personalities, and it's not easy to deal with everybody's wants and needs."

Thirty-year resident Betty Beaufort, whose Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze argued for the bill, sees the matter as "common sense."

"It's pushing people out so others can come in and make a luxury neighborhood," she said of the taller dwellings.

But many others are embracing development as a matter of survival.

"No community lives by being stagnant," said Alfred Brown, who with his wife, Donna, has run the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center for 25 years. "We need the opportunity that kind of development will bring to the community."

Residents such as Singletary, both a native and now an urban pioneer, epitomize Point Breeze. He and his girlfriend moved into one of five new three-story houses that have sprung up on the blighted 1500 block of South Lambert Street like exotic flowers.

"It's a great thing," Singletary, 25, said of the flow of reinvestment. Still he can't help but wonder, "Why does it have to be when Caucasian Americans come?"

Last decade, as white and Hispanic residents moved in, Point Breeze's African American population dropped 20 percent. For those who remain, Singletary worries, "soon we're not going to be welcome here."

After his mother died of a heart attack when he was 11, Singletary bounced from "pillar to post," moving from relative to relative in a neighborhood "wild" with drugs and gangs. His school, Audenried High, was dubbed "the prison on the hill."

"There was gambling and drug dealing and fights," Singletary said. "I found myself doing the same things."

With a girlfriend bending his ear, he traded the chaos of Point Breeze for Kutztown University, where he earned a degree in criminal justice. He recently started a mentoring program called Building Boys to Men, his way of giving back.

On Singletary's narrow block of sinking and striving, a neighbor sat on a worn sofa cushion on his front step. Robert Darby, 41, has lived on Lambert all his life, watching 10 houses become vacant lots. He sees the new houses and the few fresh faces that have moved in as a welcome spark.

"You have good, calm neighbors coming in," Darby said. "I just wish they'd make more houses."

On one side of Darby's red brick house is an empty parcel - owned by an investment company, according to city records - filled with trash and a pond of gray water.

"When it gets warm," a longtime resident joked, "we're going to turn it into a swimming pool."

On the other side of Darby's home is a swath where three houses once stood, now strewed with trash and mounds of dirt.

"It's been like that for three years," Darby said, since developers halted construction. "Now we don't know who to call."

A few doors down, a father fixed up a recently bought house while his two children played outside. Darby saw the immediate potential: "I wonder if he'll hire me for the day?"

About a half-mile away, at 15th and Mifflin on the edge of Point Breeze, the promise of revitalization is on display. The tables inside the space shared by Cafe Ultimo and Brew are filled with chatter and laptops and a clientele that mirrors a changing neighborhood. A silver-haired couple hold hands. A dreadlocked poet who moved to the city for college works on her next reading. And a photographer originally from Maryland pops in to buy some beer.

John Longacre, a Bucks County native who studied economics at Temple University and once ran for City Council, rented space to Ultimo two years ago and opened the adjoining craft-beer bottle shop. Longacre also owns the South Philadelphia Taproom across the street. And he plans to bring a gastro pub/restaurant to Point Breeze at 18th and Federal, an area rife with for-sale signs.

"It's partially for selfish reasons," said Longacre, 39, noting Point Breeze's proximity to Center City, access to public transit, and available housing.

"It's also because I believe in this neighborhood."

In his weekly ritual on a recent Saturday morning, Longacre, with a round, ruddy face, bagged trash from the vacant lot next to the shuttered Wander Inn bar, once a nuisance to neighbors and police. Several neighbors stopped to say to hello, including an older gentleman wearing a fedora-style hat on his way to church, whom Longacre greeted as "Mr. Keith."

Keith Johnson, 59, a former stevedore, has lived next door for more than two decades. He renovated a former dry cleaners with upstairs apartments into one stately home, where he lives with his wife of 31 years, a former block captain.

At one time, Johnson owned a clothing store, and a restaurant up the street. "It just went to crap," he said of the neighborhood. His explanation: drugs. His loss has been profound. His older son, Kareem, was shot and killed in 1993 at age 20. His other son, Nayher, was shot and killed in 2009, also at 20.

"This neighborhood has beat me down," Johnson said, staring at the sky.

Although cautious about the rapid redevelopment, noting how some for-sale notices have been up a while, he welcomes the signs of change.

"I admire what he's doing," he said, looking over at Longacare. "It's what I tried to do."

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com.


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